- a femme fatale to rival
Born in 1697, the Frenchman Abbé Prévost, Antoine-Francois
Prévost d'Exiles, led an extemely colourful life that rivalled that
of his characters in his most famous novel, Histoire du chevalier des
Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731). Manon Lescaut inspired
operas by Auber, Massenet, Puccini and, as recently as 1952 by Hans Werner
Henze in an updated version he re-named Boulevard Solitude. There
are also ballets by Halévy and Kenneth MacMillan. Prévost was
by turns, a Jesuit novice, a soldier, a Benedictine monk and a convert to
Between 1728 and 1734 he lived in exile in England and Holland, and was
imprisoned for forgery in the former country. Allowed to return to France
as a Benedictine monk, he briefly served the Prince de Conti as chaplain
until he was compelled to escape abroad again when accused of writing satirical
pamphlets. He returned to France in 1742 where he remained until his death
in 1763 as a writer, his life complicated by dubious love affairs and debt.
His works included translations of Richardson's novels Pamela and
Clarissa Harlowe and the seven volumes of Mémoires et aventures
d'un homme de qualité , written during his early exile. In the
seventh volume the gentleman of quality of the title receives the confidences
of the Chevalier des Grieux, a weak-willed hero who resembles, in many ways,
the author. Essentially an adventure story, this classical novel, probably
to some extent autobiographical, is full of sensibility and passion. Although
intended as a cautionary tale, in the fashion of the time, the book, set
in the corrupt Paris of the Regency, has been likened to a Racine tragedy.
Its theme is classic: reason vs. emotions; mind vs. heart; and virtue vs.
vice; illustrated by the fascination of a young nobleman for a dangerously
seductive woman. And in the passionate but fickle Manon, always hankering
after the good life at the expense of true affection, Prévost created
a full-blooded anti-heroine to rival Prosper Mérimée's Carmen
who became the basis for Bizet's celebrated opera. Both women destroy their
men and in the end themselves. Yet Des Grieux's weakness is universal and
so Prévost manages to arouse a deep sympathy in the reader for this
hero or anti-hero.
Prévost presented Manon Lescaut as a story within a story i.e.
- the gentleman of quality (probably the author himself as a mature man)
on a journey meets a young man (possibly a projection of Prévost in
his youth) whom he befriends. The young man proceeds to tell him the tragedy
of his life. Thus we see Manon exclusively through her lover eyes - male
eyes. In the book, compared with Des Grieux, Manon is much less complicated
yet a fascinating and absorbing example of feminine frailty. Her love of
pleasure and the good life is her undoing. She is amoral rather immoral.
She is headstrong and follows her instincts without thought or hesitation.
The pathos in Des Grieux's character is derived from the fact that although
he recognises all her flaws, he remains sexually enslaved to her until her
dying breath. The novel is essentially a psychological study of Des Grieux.
Prévost's portrait is drawn with great insight and sensibility. Consider
this passage of self-analysis that he puts into the mouth of his hero. He
is reading a letter from Manon in which she tries to excuse her desertion
of him for the older wealthier Treasurer-General. -
"I could not describe the state I was in when I read this letter, and to
this day I cannot decide what sort of emotions swirled around in my soul.
It was one of those unique situations, the like of which has never been
experienced before; you cannot explain to others because they have no conception
of what is meant, and you cannot unravel them for yourself because, being
unique, they have no connection with anything in your memory, nor even with
any known feeling at all. And yet, whatever my emotions were, certain is
that grief, rage, jealousy and humiliation all had a share in them."
Prévost makes Des Grieux his central character but Massenet and Puccini
recognised that for the purposes of their dramas, she had to be elevated
to equal importance with her lover (In fact Massenet tended to elevate her
higher - Puccini comes closer to Prévost's conception.).
It is interesting to compare how all the composers, librettists, and
choreographers who have been drawn to this universal story, have interpreted